Agencies Seek Ways to Bring Affordable Drugs to the Poor

February 21, 2002
By Theresa Agovino
The Associated Press

New York - The Global Alliance for TB Drug Development has no medical labs, which might seem a odd for a group that wants to develop a new treatment for tuberculosis.

Global Alliance is among a new breed of nonprofit organizations that, instead of doing their own research, are partnering with pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology arms and universities to try to and affordable medicines for diseases that plague the world's poor.

The organizations, like Medicines for Malaria Venture, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative and the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, often act somewhat like venture capitalists, providing money for drug and vaccine development.
However, instead of getting a portion of the profits from a discovery, they secure the rights to sell the product in the developing world at an affordable price.

In turn, they give companies that participate the product rights for the developed world, where some money can be made even if the market is small.

Few arms bother to research malaria and tuberculosis because most of the need is in the developing world, where people can't afford medicine.

While several companies may be working on an AIDS vaccine, the high cost of current AIDS treatments and their limited availability to the Third World, even through special arrangements approved by drug makers, demonstrates the need for new approaches.

"We are trying to balance having a market for companies to be able to sell their drugs with our social mission," said Maria Freire, chief executive of Global Alliance. "Our job is to make key investments and drive development as far as we can."
Over the last 25 years, fewer than 1 percent of the more than 1,300 drugs approved for sale were developed to treat tropical diseases.

Malaria kills one child every 30 seconds around the world, yet new drugs are too expensive for most of the world's poor and in many cases the disease is resistant to older medicines.

Tuberculosis kills more that 2 million people a year, yet the last innovative treatment was developed 30 years ago.
"Drug development occurs for western diseases. These public private partnerships make the situation a lot less hopeless," said Nathan Ford, who advises a campaign by Medicins Sans Frontieres to create greater access to medicines.

So far, none of the new partnerships has successfully developed a product. The oldest one, the Global AIDS Vaccine Initiative, was founded seven years ago. It says it may have a vaccine ready by 2007.

Drug research and development costs can be astronomical, and activists fear that the partnerships may never reach their full potential because of a dependency on foundations and governments for funding. Those could be reduced, or simply ended, at any time.